A few months ago, Stephanie Wallace and I (Jeremiah Gibson) posted an episode on our podcast Under the Covers where we gave advice for couples who may be looking to open up their relationship.

We introduced Dottie Easton and Janet Hardy's abundance model of love (as opposed to the starvation model). Love and sexual satisfaction are not limited commodities that run out at some point, but exist abundantly. The abundance model of love recognizes that we all have limitations, and that an individual cannot be everything for his/her partner. The more I try to be all things for my partner, the more that I invite anxiety into my relationship.

We talked about different types of open relationships--swinging, polyamory, sexually open relationships without emotional connection. We brainstormed ways that a partner may introduce the topic of exploring an open relationship with his/her partner. We also pointed out common challenges with having an open relationship. Time management. Jealousy. Safe sex practices.

But let's be clear. Every intimate relationship has some level of openness to it.

We all have colleagues of all genders that we hang out with at work. Friends (attractive and otherwise) that we went to school with. Family members. And while it's important and fairly natural to set certain boundaries with these folks, we can't become so completely anxious that we avoid making relationships with others in our community.

The more insular a relationship is, and the more we rely strictly on our partner for meeting our needs, the more we suffocate our partners, and the less access to oxygen and growth the relationship has.

Janet Hardy and Dottie Easton (authors of The Ethical Slut) and Tristan Taormino (author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships) provide valuable feedback for all couples who are trying to balance their social and familial friendships with the expectations of their primary relationships. I highly suggest you read one or both books, regardless of whether or not you want to sexually open up your relationship.

Abby Girard and Alison Brownlee, professors at Alliant International University, recently drew upon seven themes of healthy open relationships in a primer published for couples therapists. These themes are enormously valuable for all people who navigate multiple relationships. We begin with part one: Fidelity.


We know the word infidelity, which has become synonymous with "sexual external relationship". But what does fidelity actually mean?

Fidelity seems to come from the Latin verb "fidere", which means to trust. The word confide means to trust in or trust with.

Musicians know that fidelity refers to the extent that a record player or stereo speakers accurately produces sound or visual. Beck, Bon Iver, and Beach House are all bands that have produced albums at a lower quality than standard wavelengths (lo-fi music). Check out Bon Iver's Re: Stacks, from the album For Emma, Forever Ago. Justin Vernon recorded this album in a cabin in Wisconsin, as opposed to a recording studio, with its sound panels and high quality. Notice the mild echo and the light, airy falsetto that Vernon sings with:

High fidelity music production (hi-fi), meanwhile, seeks to provide as realistic of a listening experience as possible. Hi fi sound production can be created through numerous avenues: speakers, digital-to-analog converters, any music file that isn't an MP3. (MP3s are compressed files, which decrease the accuracy of audio, pitch, frequency, etc. Spotify and Pandora play versions of MP3s on their websites; if you'd like to stream hi-fi music, check out this article from Sound and Vision.)

Interestingly, most of our ears aren't great at distinguishing hi-fi music from compressed files of music, such as MP3s, Spotify, or CDs. Brad Meyer and David Moran, researchers at the Boston Audio Society, suggested that listeners, including sound engineers, were generally unable to distinguish variations in music when played through different types of loud speakers. CNBC suggested that approximately one-third of participants were able to accurately distinguish the hi-fi and CD files (using far less scientific data).

NPR invites you to test your auditory skills through its online experiment.

Likewise, in relationships, it can be truly difficult to detect low fidelity; often, our perception that our partner is being untruthful has much more to do with our own anxiety and experiences of feeling let down and betrayed than it does our partner betraying the truth in some way.

To be fair, if one has experienced non-consensual non-monogamy (namely, cheating) in their relationship, it can be challenging to trust that our partner will maintain fidelity for the relationship in future interactions. The tips in this section are primarily geared toward partners who have experienced cheating in their relationship, but they're good advice for all couples.

How can I identify fidelity in my relationship?

  1. Let's actually start something to not do. Do not track your partner's phone. Do not break into your partner's phone and read his/her text messages. The more you play detective, the more you're not only going to invite anxiety into your own life, the more you're going to push your partner away.

  2. Let your partner know who your friends are, and define those relationships from the perspective of the abundance model of love. This is what my relationship with (insert friend's name here) provides me.

  3. (Or really, 2a.) Identify and take ownership of your limitations in a relationship. Work on exploring and improving these limitations, but also be clear with your partner that providing immediate empathy, for instance, is really challenging, and that there may be other relationships that provide that limitation better.

  4. Your partner is only speaking from his/her perspective of things. If their perspective differs from yours, it doesn't necessary mean that they're lying. Calling your partner a liar, in most situations, is a criticism that will only lead to a defensive or withdrawn response.

  5. Establish clear expectations and agreements about the boundaries of external relationships. Write out these expectations if you need to. Objectivity is key.

  6. Hold up your end of the bargain. Fidelity represents one's ability to stick to the agreements of the relationship. And remember, you are only responsible for what you do, not what your partner does.

  7. Rely on the creation and follow-through of these agreements as a definition for fidelity, not the narratives and emotions connected with anxiety, abandonment, and fear.

  8. Come back to these agreements over time, and make edits and amendments that fit your experimentation with these agreements, while talking about the emotional process of maintaining and amending agreements in a non-judgmental way. Fidelity is a fluid process, not a rigid one.

If you'd like help defining clearer boundaries and a more effective, less invasive process for communicating about agreements, feel free to give us a call at 617-750-0183. Also, you can schedule an appointment online by clicking the Book Online link at the top of the page.

Jeremiah Gibson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, where he primarily works with couples who are looking to improve the quality of their communication.